movie review by
Gary Johnson


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For Love of the Game
First off, I should probably admit that I'm a big baseball fan. I think it's the greatest game on Earth. That probably explains (in part, at least) why I liked this new Kevin Costner baseball movie. Costner has starred in two of the best baseball movies ever made--Bull Durham and Field of Dreams--and while his new baseball movie, For Love of the Game, isn't quite on the same level as either of those movies, it's still an immensely enjoyable vehicle.

Bull Durham provided us with a privileged view behind the scenes, into the locker room shenanigans, the long bus rides, the post-game partying. It provided an amazingly insightful and funny portrait of life in the minor leagues. For Love of the Game never provides the insights of Bull Durham. Most of its insights are limited to the game on the field--in particular, to pitcher-batter battles. Outside of the scruffy, good-field/no-hit catcher played by John C. Reilly, we don't get to know any of the other players. No, For Love of the Game isn't about the inside game of baseball as much as it's about one player--a 19-year veteran named Billy Chapel (Kevin Costner). He's struggling to find a satisfying personal life. In the past he hadn't been interested in developing long-term relationships. Baseball groupies and one-night stands were all he wanted. But when he meets a smart, beautiful, and feisty woman named Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston), his priorities slowly begin to change.

That's what this movie is primarily about--the relationship between Billy Chapel and Jane Aubrey--or at least that's the drama that occupies most of the screen time. Structurally, the movie takes the form of a single baseball game, played late in the season, long after Billy's team, the Detroit Tigers, have been eliminated from post-season play. The game doesn't mean anything to the Tigers. However, after the team's owner tells Billy that he has sold the team to a corporate group, Billy finds himself unwanted. The new owners are ready to trade him. So this last game for Billy, with the new owners watching from their luxury box seats, acquires much greater significance. His shoulder might be hurting, but now he's willing to put everything on the line in one last game.

Between each pitch, we see flashbacks that concentrate on Billy and Jane and their uncertain future together. She's in the process of accepting a job in England, so it looks like she has given up on Billy. With Jane on his mind and with his future in baseball in doubt, Billy takes the mound and begins pitching the game of his life. Between pitches and between innings, Billy's thoughts tend to drift, but when it's time to deliver the next pitch, he suddenly shuts out everything. Nothing exists except for the batter and catcher.

I'm not sure I really bought the story's main conceit--that even though Billy is preoccupied with his future as a Tiger and his future with Jane--he can concentrate so intently on pitching to the New York Yankees that he finds himself on the verge of pitching a perfect game. But it's a wonderfully romantic (albeit corny) concept.

On the debit side, however, the film never gets very far beneath the surface of Billy Chapel. Ultimately, we know much more about Jane and her insecurities than we do about Billy. In Bull Durham, for example, we saw Crash Davis (Costner) away from the baseball field in a variety of situations, and in the process, he became a more rounded character, someone we could care about. However, Billy Chapel never becomes much more than a generic baseball veteran. Part of the problem is the scenes between Billy and Jane aren't particularly imaginative. We get the requisite "first meeting" scene and the ensuing dating scenes; however, these scenes are bland compared to the interplay between Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham. They dutifully set up the love relationship--in a relatively predictable fashion. There are few surprises.

On the plus side, For Love of the Game is absorbing when the camera focuses on baseball action. Even if the movie doesn't tell us much about Billy Chapel's past, we know enough about him to care about what happens on the ball field. And being a long time suffering Kansas City Royals fan--who suffered through the '70s when the Royals lost to the Yankees three times in the playoffs--it was particularly satisfying to see Billy mowing down the Yankees (and destroying their post-season hopes) as the Yankees fans shout insults: "You're through!" and "You're a bum!"

Directed by Sam Raimi, who built his career with the Evil Dead movies, For Love of the Game is a gloriously romantic movie that looks like no previous Raimi movie. He eschews all vestiges of the quirky perspective that informed most of his previous movies in favor of an anonymous approach. The only clue that For Love of the Game is a Sam Raimi movie is his name in the credits (and his brother, Ted, in a bit role).

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]